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Piecing together a success story
08 August 2007

From playing with puzzles for fun to making a living out of the games, Mamaki Mlangeni attributes her success to hard work, commitment and skills learned at The Business Place.


Souvenir puzzles meant for reconnecting South Africans to their roots
Souvenir puzzles meant for reconnecting South Africans to their roots

NOT that long ago Mamaki Mlangeni was an ordinary young Sowetan, unsure of what to do with her future. But she did enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles. A short 15 months later Mlangeni's life has rapidly transformed, demanding that she answer a continuously ringing cellphone – the calls are usually from clients in Botswana or South Africa wanting to place orders for the jigsaw puzzles she designs and manufactures.

Not that this is a bad thing or that she minds - she appears to love the ringing phone, grinning every time - for surely it is a symbol of her growing business.

Mlangeni teamed up with Gabrielle Ritchie to establish Blue Fish Puzzles, a company that manufactures souvenir 60-piece jigsaw puzzles for corporates, individuals and children. Ritchie is the operations manager, running the business from its offices in Cape Town; Mlangeni works in Joburg as the sales and marketing co-ordinator.

She attributes the idea behind Blue Fish to a group of friends who had gathered at a wedding, where they chatted about their love of doing puzzles and, significantly, that it was a shame there were no puzzles relating to South Africa and its culture. "My friends and I used to buy puzzles as gifts for each other. However, to be always spending money on puzzles and building images that were not related to our country wasn't realistic."

Turning a hobby into a living
Driven by an indomitable impulse to turn her hobby into something that could generate an income, Mlangeni enrolled at The Business Place (TBP) to get advice on starting a small, medium or micro enterprise (SMME). She now speaks highly of the organisation. "I see [it] as a one-stop business hub where one should go if one is struggling to run a business," she notes, adding that she still visits for help when she struggles to take tough business decisions. "I'll always value their input."

TBP is an information centre where budding entrepreneurs get training and legal and financial guidance in to managing SMMEs efficiently. It is supported and sponsored by the City of Johannesburg and Investec, the financial services company. Several economists have also identified it as a critical driver of economic growth, job creation and transformation, since it also offers support and referrals to its protégés.

The offices are in the central business district, at 58 Marshal Street, inside an Investec-owned building; there are three satellite centres, one in Kliptown, in Soweto, one in Alexandra and one in Metsweding (Bronkhorstspruit).

According to Marcel Newsome, who manages the central office and oversees the satellites, TBP "assists in consolidating various ways in which agencies can support its clients in growing SMMEs". It also works closely with the Umsobomvu Youth Fund to subsidise budding entrepreneurs.

The city branch has shown tremendous growth since its inception six years ago, with its monthly intake soaring from 600 to more than 2 500 people. "This can be attributed to the fact that people have shown hunger to acquire information to start businesses," Newsome adds.

Business development workshops
Visitors generally are looking for assistance in setting up their own businesses, with an estimated 370-plus taking part in the business development workshops, of which there are about 18 a month. They are usually charged a nominal fee of R5 to R10, encouraging them to commit to the training.

On offer is business training; one-on-one business guidance; regular and affordable business workshops, including business sector
networking sessions; and access to the internet for users to check for available opportunities. "We keep in contact with our clients and if we think that a certain workshop … is ideal and can be beneficial, we invite them over for further edification."

Although new clients usually ask general questions about how to start a business, Newsome explains that a client's needs are first identified, and then that client is sent on relevant workshops according to his or her level of business knowledge. "We do consultations as we assess their progress and make sure that they walk away with a better understanding of how to start a business."

Business acumen is also built. The workshops are engineered to give a basic outline of all the important details needed to establish a business. "Our focus is to give people access to information through workshops that can enhance their businesses."

Newsome says TBP sees the need to identify business opportunities on behalf of its clients, and make them accessible. "We keep a database of opportunities available in different industries and we then identify a client who is appropriate for that position."

City partnerships
The City and City Parks, among others, have come on board, encouraging TBP clients to apply for jobs and tenders in their structures.

Mlangeni, just one of the almost 25 000 people who visit TBP annually, won R30 000 through its Kick Start competition after working around the clock to set Blue Fish Puzzles for bigger heights. Having undergone rigorous business development training, she and her partner went from zero to hero almost overnight, getting their first order, producing their first stock, managing a website and printing business cards.

Although this meant they had to ditch their friends and abandon their families sometimes, the challenges made the duo stronger and even more focused. They were eager to build their business up from the ground, and realised that slacking off would lead to lost opportunity.

"After winning the competition we worked hard to impress the sponsors, and we made them acknowledge that we were committed and determined to establish a business," Mlangeni recalls. They also showed that they were the right people for the grant.

The response to Blue Fish Puzzles has been phenomenal, she says. TBP also takes orders on its behalf. "Most of our clients are recommended to us by it. We are in the process of becoming established and getting our business known so that we can expand the brand. We want to produce more products, add more styles and images."

Commitment is vital
Despite the success, Mlangeni says running a business isn't easy. It demands a lot of self-sacrifice and one has to be entirely committed to the work. "The rewards are abundant, you just have to be committed."

She preaches commitment, believing that nothing can defeat it. Her message to budding entrepreneurs is that they should have hope and be committed to what they want to achieve. "What you don't know you can learn; don't give up; have faith in yourself and your business ideas and believe that you will one day prosper."

Although believing that Blue Fish still has a long way to go, she says it is starting to flourish. It has expanded its market, with the products already selling in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Botswana. They are available at major national retail chains CNA, Incredible Connection and Exclusive Books, as well as at airport shops.

One of the Blue Fish Puzzles designed for kids
One of the Blue Fish Puzzles designed for kids

The Business Place franchise has helped almost 50 000 people nationwide – who were in the same shoes as Mlangeni – to get their SMMEs off the ground from nothing. Another success story is Tshidi Tau who has opened a successful African and Chinese restaurant in Soweto, the first Chinese eatery in the township.

In all, 60 percent of TBP's clients are in a development stage, 25 percent are running established businesses and 10 percent are in fully grown stages of business management. Most are in manufacturing, construction, information and communications technology, and tourism.

Every year the City contributes almost R2-million to TBP, of which the majority goes to the central city branch - this year almost R1,4-million was injected into that branch.

Appointments aren't necessary at TBP; "Just walk in and you'll get all the help you need to create your own business," Newsome says.

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Last Updated on 20 August 2007